Guns, germs, and steel : the fates of human societies

by Jared M. Diamond

Paperback, 1999

Status

Available

Publication

New York : Norton, 1999.

Description

Why did Eurasians conquer, displace, or decimate Native Americans, Australians, and Africans, instead of the reverse? In this groundbreaking book, evolutionary biologist Jared Diamond stunningly dismantles racially based theories of human history by revealing the environmental factors actually responsible for history's broadest patterns. Here, at last, is a world history that really is a history of all the world's peoples, a unified narrative of human life even more intriguing and important than accounts of dinosaurs and glaciers. A major advance in our understanding of human societies, Guns, Germs, and Steel chronicles the way that the modern world, and its inequalities, came to be. It is a work rich in dramatic revelations that will fascinate readers even as it challenges conventional wisdom.… (more)

Media reviews

In ''Guns, Germs, and Steel,'' an ambitious, highly important book, Jared Diamond asks: How did Pizarro come to be at Cajamarca capturing Atahualpa, instead of Atahualpa in Madrid capturing King Charles I? Why, indeed, did Europeans (and especially western Europeans) and Asians always triumph in their historical conquests of other populations? Why weren't Native Americans, Africans and aboriginal Australians instead the ones who enslaved or exterminated the Europeans?
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Jared Diamond has written a book of remarkable scope: a history of the world in less than 500 pages which succeeds admirably, where so many others have failed, in analysing some of the basic workings of cultural process. . . It is willing to simplify and to generalize; and it does reach conclusions, about ultimate as well as proximate causes, that carry great conviction, and that have rarely, perhaps never, been stated so coherently or effectively before. For that reason, and with few reservations, this book may be welcomed as one of the most important and readable works on the human past published in recent years.

User reviews

LibraryThing member psutto
[guns, germs & steel] Jared Diamond (not counting this one, didn’t get past the preface)

So I read a few pages of this book then decided to throw it in the bin. Not pass it on in any way. Just Dump it.

In the first paragraph - “Why did history unfold differently on different continents? In case this question immediately makes you shudder at the thought you are about to read a racist treatise, you aren’t” As Charlie Brooker pointed out on the 10 O’clock show recently someone introducing themselves as “Not a Racist” is a bit suspicious. Still that wasn’t what made me throw this book at the wall. A few pages later we have this: “New Guineans may have come to be smarter than Westerners. European and American children spend much of their time being passively entertained by TV” hmm that old saw of TV rots the brain, for which evidence is ambiguous at best and many studies actually say that moderate TV viewing actually increases intelligence. But no, Mr Diamond has obviously decided the goggle box is the Devil’s device as a few sentences on he says “irreversible mental stunting associated with reduced childhood stimulation” (the TV being an anti-stimulation device of course) and “mental abilities in New Guineans are probably genetically superior to Westerners, and they surely are superior in escaping the devastating developmental disadvantages that most children in industrialised societies now grow up” (my italics) Oh Really? Can you say sweeping generalisation without any evidence Mr Diamond? And the reason he thinks New Guineans “may have come to be smarter than Westerners”? Well apparently it’s because they live a hand to mouth style existence struggling to find food (malnutrition in children is actually a cause of mental retardation isn’t it?) and fighting tribal wars so the stupid is killed off before it can breed and in Western society we’ve apparently conquered Maslow’s hierarchy of needs beyond the find food, find shelter level or as Mr. Diamond puts it “Europeans have for thousands of years been living in densely populated societies with central governments, police, and judiciaries where murders were relatively uncommon and a state of war was the exception rather than the rule.” Oh Really? Thousands of years you say, exactly what history books have you been reading Mr Diamond?

This book gets an average of 4.15 stars on LT?!? Most people say it is a must read (there are few thoughtful reviews (from people who actually read the book) pointing out much larger flaws than the ones I’ve highlighted above, and apparently Diamond, a non-historian, tells historians that they’ve been doing history wrong!

It was such an important book that not only is there an abridged version there is also a reading companion, a documentary series AND it won the Pulitzer? My flabber is well and truly gasted

And that’s probably the longest review I’ve done for 10 pages worth of reading!
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LibraryThing member ZacAbeel
Have you ever wondered why some societies in the world are quite developed economically, politically, and militarily, while many more societies in the world have very little wealth, unstable governments, and continually seem on the brink of catastrophe?
Guns Germs and Steel is author Jared Diamond's masterpiece in explaining how geographic and environmental conditions are the reasons behind why some countries on this earth "Have" and why many countries "Do Not Have."

In only a few hundred pages Diamond changed how I look at and understand the world. If you are someone that wants to know how "we" as the human race ended up the way we did I strongly recommend this book. If you've ever wondered why things are the way they are, then read this book. In fact, if you've ever wondered about anything, then read this book as an excellent starting point.
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LibraryThing member edgeworth
On the 18th of January 1788, the forerunners of a Royal Navy fleet under the command of Captain Arthur Philip made landfall on the east coast of Australia, after a gruelling eight month voyage. By the 26th of January this fleet, comprising of eleven ships and 1, 332 sailors, marines and convicts, had sailed north to Port Jackson, founded the tiny settlement that would eventually become Sydney, and established the first permanent European presence on the Australian continent.

Over the next two centuries, approximately half a million Aboriginals would die. Whether from organised massacres or introduced British diseases or even a genocidal "breeding out" policy that the dominance of the British settlers enabled them to enact, the Australian Aboriginals were completely and utterly at the mercy of their technologically superior invaders.

The same sad story has been played out hundreds of times across the globe. Indigenous groups of the Americas, Africa, Australia, South-East Asia and the South Pacific have been urope's whipping boys for hundreds of years. Even today, in nations such as Australia and the United States, these natives are stuck on a much lower socio-economic rung than the ancestors of European settlers. Why wasn't it Australian Aboriginals who built vast fleets, sailed to the other side of the world and got all up in Britain's grill? Why did they remain primitive hunter-gatherers while Europeans invented cool stuff like the moveable printing press, flintlock rifle and hot-air balloon?

For many years the assumptive answer was that Europeans were simply genetically more intelligent, a superior race to any other. Diamond slaps a great big RACIST stamp on this assertion, and proceeds to explain exactly why Eurasia wound up as big man on campus by tracing technological developments back to their earliest roots.

The core argument he makes is that certain parts of the world have more domesticable plant and animal species: for example, Eurasia had awesome big mammals like the horse and the cow, which provided one with a sweet ride and a tasty dinner respectively, whereas Africa got stuck with the lion (which will eat you) the hippo (which will eat you) and the zebra (which willl bite you and not let go until it dies). Likewise, Eurasia had easy crops like wheat, which you can grow by just tossing the seeds around the field all day and then sitting around wanking until they grows, whereas North America only had corn, seeds of which you had to pain-stakingly plant individually under the hot sun - with no beasts of burden to help you plow. (Oh, and living around herds of animals all the time? That's what helped us build strong immunity to diseases which originally developed in those animals, which we then unleashed on people who weren't quite so lucky to have as many shivering, plague-ridden pets.)

Thus Eurasia was able to grow a hell of a lot more food, which led to higher population densities, which meant Spaniards and Russians and Chinese had a whole bunch of people sitting around inventing shit or deciding to build an empire, whereas in the depths of the Amazon every able-bodied man was hunting and gathering from dawn till dusk just to stay alive. I've generalised what was already a very general argument, but this is the gist of it.

Diamond makes a lot of outrigger arguments supporting this - even the axes of the continents were supposedly fundamental to human development. Eurasia is largely oriented west-east, while the Americas are mostly north-south, with a particularly narrow gap at Panama. This made it a lot easier for technologies (particularly animal domestication and crop development) to spread, because they were travelling along latitude to similar climates and day lengths - whereas anyone trying to plant Mexican corn in Canada would starve to death when the seeds sprouted expecting a Cancun paradise and instead found themselves in Manitoba. Likewise, Chinese innovations could wind up in Britain via India, the Black Sea or Russia, whereas the only way for North America and South America to contact each other was through a very long, thin stretch of land that was mostly impenetrable swamp.

This book needs to be evaluated on two levels: its worth as a theory, and its worth as a book. My professional scientific analysis of Diamond's theory is "pretty good I guess." Naturally he's looking at things through an extremely wide window (15,000 years wide, to be precise) and makes a lot of sweeping generalisations and oversimplifications, but this is inevitable and Diamond acknowledges that. I feel that certain elements of his theory are wonky; he focuses on geography to an almost bizarre degree, even arguing that China's historical unity is because it is mostly flat, while Europe has all these rivers and mountains and shit that empires can't possibly cross and forge into a megastate. Shit, I just spent decades assembling this massive legion and now there's a five-metre deep river between us and Gaul, better ride all the way back to Rome instead of chopping down that forest and building some rafts. And I'm no expert on China either, but I'm pretty sure there's a lot of rivers and mountains there too. On the whole, though, he presents probably the best alternative to an odious racial explanation of our history: whites just had better real estate.

As a scientific book, "Guns, Germs And Steel" is a fairly easy read. It's certainly accessible to the layman, even if extended chapters on the distribution of cereal crops might cause you to nod off on the subway. Jared is certainly no Bill Bryson - he doesn't have the knack for peppering his writing with witty observations and jokes - but he's readable to anyone with a passing interest in history. I suppose a large part of the appeal of this book is simple curiosity, because he does pose an interesting question: how come some ethnic groups ended up in the cotton fields with chains around their necks, while others were sitting on the porch in a rocking chair sipping mint julep? On the other hand I just managed to summarise his answer to that question in about 399 less pages than he did, so if the finer details don't intrigue you than maybe you should just check out some other fine Pulitzer prize winners.
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LibraryThing member salimbol
Diamond posits geography (and the concomitant availability of animals and plants in certain areas, as well as geographic barriers) as the ultimate arbiter of human history. In doing so, he examines what he considers the ultimate historical roots of oppression; here, he explicitly rejects old racist theories that insist on Europeans as intellectually and/or morally superior to any of the peoples they conquered or subsumed. Ambitious in scope and conception, this is a fascinating if *slow* read. I feel like I've learned a great deal, particularly in terms of the domestication of plants and animals (squirrels and acorns, who would have thought?), and certainly the chapters where he details the geographic factors that mitigated against the diffusion of ideas and objects provided a lot of food for thought (e.g. the East-West axis of Eurasia as opposed to the North-West axes of Africa and the Americas). However, because the scope is so very large, inevitably there's a huge amount of glossing over of details, and the work therefore certainly sidesteps a lot of the individuality of cultures and peoples. Finally, it's more of a popular history than anything else, with a reading list but no citations, and that always makes me a little uneasy :-).… (more)
LibraryThing member owen1218
Jared Diamond begins his book with a question: "[W]hy weren't Native Americans, Africans and Aboriginal Australians the ones who decimated, subjugated, or exterminated Europeans and Asians?" The obvious answer in my mind is that they simply had no interest in waging a war of genocide against the rest of the world, that indeed these cultures would have considered such an effort insane. But this answer does not satisfy Jared Diamond, because he cannot fathom that a culture could simply not be interested in conquest and genocide. He cannot fathom that a culture might not want to be an empire, that a culture might not want to be European. He is looking outward from a European culture and asking why other cultures are different from his own.

It quickly becomes clear that he is unaware of this bias, as it does not occur to him to even consider whether the answer to his question lies in culture. Rather he frames our potential answers for us as follows: geography, or overt racism. Jared Diamond dismantles the argument of the overtly racist position ("Non-whites failed to wage genocide and conquest against the rest of the world because they are too stupid") in favor of the covertly racist position ("Non-whites failed to wage genocide and conquest against the world because they didn't have the geographic advantages that Europe and Asia did"). By comparing all societies against a European model, the author is inclined to see all other societies as "failed Europes" that "lack" certain attributes. That there is absolutely no evidence that non-Eurasian indigenous people had any interest in conquering, subjugating, or exterminating the rest of the world is apparently a moot point. Again and again he talks about how non-Europeans "failed" to match some European 'achievement', without bothering to provide evidence that they ever even had any interest in it. To get a sense of the absurdity of this, imagine that he had chosen African hunter-gatherer societies as his model instead. Would it then make sense to talk about how Europeans "failed" to achieve a communal society, an autarkic foraging-based economy, and a total absence of war? It would only make sense if Europe had a clear cultural interest in making these achievements. Otherwise, this is a textbook example of ethnocentrism, or the evaluation of another culture by the standards of one's own.

Within another hundred pages or so, it becomes clear that Diamond is fundamentally an amateur in many of the subjects he professes knowledge in. His background is in geography, biophysics, and physiology, and yet has written a book built heavily dependent on the fields of anthropology, archaeology, ecology, and history. He argues, for instance, that Clovis peoples hunted megafauna such as mammoths to extinction, in spite of the clear impossibility of such a feat. (Indeed, a much more plausible theory now suggests that a comet impact was largely responsible.) He also gives a retelling of the old myth that native people reached America by following a land bridge and an "ice free corridor", despite current evidence that areas as far south as Chile were populated before the land bridge supposedly opened up. (The idea of a land bridge crossing and ice free corridor were never strongly supported by anthropological evidence, they were simply conjectured on the racist assumption that native people were incapable of sea travel.)

Another example of incompetency is when he makes the claim that most 'chiefdoms' are "kleptomaniac" societies in which the elites steal from the common members of the society, without actually using examples from the "chiefdom" societies he mentions. Instead he speaks of "chiefdoms" in a mythical sort of way, as if they were all fundamentally the same, and then tells us a story about this generalized, unnamed chiefdom. In this way he can advance his theory of cultural evolution without providing any factual evidence to support it. And in fact the societies he does claim to be chiefdoms are often very different from his idealized portrait of "the chiefdom". For instance one of the "chiefdoms" he describes in the book are the "Kwakiutl" (who are actually the Kwak'waka'wakw; 'Kwakiutl' was the name of a single Kwak'waka'wakw band that was mistaken by early anthropologists for the name of the larger group). But rather than being a "kleptomaniac" society in which the top members steal from the bottom, Kwak'waka'wakw society is based politically on potlatching, a system in which leaders are ranked not for how much they accumulate from the commoners, but how much wealth they can give away to them. Only by continuously giving can a leader show that he is worthy of the community's respect and maintain his status. A situation completely 180 from Jared Diamond's simple system for caricaturing diverse societies, which comes us to us incidentally from antiquated works of anthropology, such as Peter Farb's "Man's Rise to Civilization As Shown by the Indians of North America", first published in 1968).

These are just a few of the more striking examples. He often reveals his lack of a hand in more subtle ways, as for instance when he describes the 9% annual death rate of First Nations people in Saskatchewan from European germs as "incredible". But this rate is hardly so incredible. Where I live, just to give an example, 90% of the local population (the Kalapuya) died over a period of three years when malaria was introduced to the area. If he had researched the subject in any depth he would have found that the death rate in Saskatchewan was actually fairly typical.

It also becomes clear that Diamond did not research his question to find an answer, but rather answered his question and then handpicked evidence to support that answer. Even still, much of his evidence is flaky at best and lends itself better to other explanations. For instance, he tries to explain that the apparent naivete of American Indian leaders was due to a lack of history books. Even if we ignore Diamond's ignorance of the complex oral histories in these societies, this argument seems rather impoverished. A much more likely answer is that these cultures had simply never come into contact with behavior so callous, arrogant, and mythomanic as that presented by the conquistadors, and thus were unable to prepare themselves against it. If this reasoning occurred to Diamond, he was careful to ignore it, as it directly contradicts his thesis. Indeed, Diamond took great care not to present any explanations that discouraged his overall conclusion, gambling that exhibiting unwavering confidence in a carefully constructed story would prevent people from noticing his academic shortcomings.

Considering his book was a bestseller and won him both a Pulitzer Prize and a documentary series, it appears that his gamble paid off quite handsomely.
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LibraryThing member DonSiano
Diamond's clearly stated thesis is that geography is the great determiner of human destiny, though, weirdly, it is left out of the title of the book. The book actually has little to say about the three items of the title, but rather focuses on the natural resources available to different regions of the world, the animals that could be domesticated, and the possibilities for communicating with other adjacent cultures. In line with the current passion for multiculturalism, he argues that the people involved are pretty much all equivalent, and that there are no important racial differences that need to be considered.
He dismisses the work of the psychometricians whose data, in spite of the taboos of our current state, reveal in hundreds of studies that people's intelligence vary by racial group. He throws out this data, incredibly, based on his own assessments of personal experience with different peoples. In fact, he baldly states his belief that stone age peoples such as New Guineans (whom he knows something about) are actually on average more intelligent than white Europeans. One more example of introspective speculation and personal, anecdotal experience being being mistaken for hard data that can be replicated, graphed, statistically analyzed, and added to by studies with improved methodologies.

His attack on such an important question as IQ and the "wealth of nations" is weak, unconvincing, unscholarly, colored by political correctness, and short.

In order to see the importance of geography and race, Diamond might have considered comparing the development over the last few hundred years of the peoples on the islands of Hispaniola and Iceland. Try spending a couple of hours with your browser aimed at the CIA fact book, Google's pictures, and a few other readily available sources, then tell me why you think geography is the prime mover in the fate of nations!

His hopes of helping to see history become more scientific, argued in his last chapter, though, certainly is meritorious. Really important questions about the history and destiny of man can and should be attacked by scientific methods, and perhaps Diamond's accretion of observations and speculations do serve as a sort of start, something like how alchemy started chemistry.
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LibraryThing member ablueidol
Clear counter argument to assumptions that Western ascendancy is down to genetic advantage. At its simplest the historical decision of who turned right or left when the African Diaspora happen sealed the fate of many peoples. But this is being flippant about a serious issue.

The essential argument is that the availability of domesticatable plants and animals (and the level of benefit for switching from hunting-gathering)affected how early and successfully could food production kick off. A key to the availability and speed of transmission is the axis of the continents. Hence Euroasia with its west-east axis as the longest belt of similar temperature zones so skills and technology can move up and down with relative issue. This is not the case in say the Americas and Africa where the cultural hot-spots where both isolated from each other and lacked access to many of the key plants and animals.

Once food production took off then population increased which if with large scale animal production created a germ base that over time created a level of immunity not created for those societies less dense or with limited animal production. Again if limited transmission then limited immunity is built up. A lot of western conquests were down to having wiping the population out with germs and then importing the crops and animals that would allow for population expansion.

As population increases then the opportunity for technology and idea specialists develops and if ease of transmission then competition between communities/ states drives development. Lack of competition or isolation limited the drive to develop or use the technology. Japanese in the 16th century encountered and then improved the guns of the time but for 200 years withdraw and abandoned the technology that could have had serious consequences for the region. Or the central African tribes that independently discovered Iron and then Steel some 2000 years before the West.

Once he has established his thesis by examining each of the key continents, he explores a range of case studies to test if it can explain the different historical journeys of say China, Africa, and other major non western areas.

I think this is where some of the criticism comes from that the book is repetitive. He tends to do the lecture thing of telling you what he is going to say, say it and the summarizing what he has said. I found it useful as I read it over a number of days on trains, lunch breaks etc to keep the key points clear as they were "tested" with case studies.

The only main criticism I would make of the whole argument which makes a lot of sense is that it tends to underplay the importance of social struggle within the constraints of the geographical base. He does mention that the social structure of Japan was a key factor in the isolation but misses that it was the struggle to create a central state and reject the rising Christian mission that drove the policy. Its geographical position enabled this to be a success. Likewise China kept frustrating possible technological or imperial leaps but less down to the whim of the Emperor but because those changes would have challenged the social order. But again I accept this as a policy was only possible because of the successful previous agricultural revolution that created a unified China.

For "Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past."
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LibraryThing member BucksLRC1
What makes a "have?" Or a "have not?" Why do some parts of the world flourish while others choke on ashes? Jared Diamond explores the historical roots and consequences of the haves vs the have-nots in this fantastic book.
LibraryThing member stacyinthecity
I'm very interested in history, ancient history, and anthropology, so this book naturally appealed to me. This book attempts to explain why people in Europe ended up colonizing and conquering most of the rest of the world. The simple answer is the title of the book, and Diamond attempts to explain why the Europeans had guns, germs and steel while other societies did not. His theory is that Europe and Asia had more natural resources, more domesticatible animals and plants, how those food sources allowed the formation of larger governments, armies, and so forth. He also explains how having access to other societies important for idea diffusion. These ideas can lead to technological inventions that can give a particular society an edge. In addition to explaining things in that manner, he also looks at Polynesian societies to explain why some were able to create larger governments.

I found the book very interesting, although he has the tendency to repeat himself. I understood his central argument the first time he wrote it; it was not necessary to reiterate it over and over again in each chapter. Some of his examples are weak, and his ideas are not without criticism from trained historians and anthropologists.

Still, interesting read and an interesting way to think about the domination of western civilization.
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LibraryThing member Niecierpek
The book is an attempt to answer the question why the rise of complex human societies unfolded differently on different continents. The main conclusion is it was differences in continental environments, not in human biology. Advanced technology, centralized political organization, writing, and other features of complex societies could emerge only in dense sedentary populations capable of accumulating food surpluses. The domesticable wild plants and animal species essential for that rise of agriculture were distributed very unevenly over the continents. The most valuable suitable wild species were concentrated in only nine small areas on Earth, which became in turn the first places suitable for agriculture, which were in turn the first places to develop guns, germs and steel. Descendants of those societies became dominant in the ancient and the modern world. This is, in a very short synopsis, the book. This is the thesis that Diamond poses at the beginning of the book and then takes 400 pages to prove- in my opinion very successfully. It makes for a compelling, superbly organized read and a fantastic anti-racist thesis.… (more)
LibraryThing member rivkat
I got really into reading about Diamond’s Collapse, which gave several key reasons societies collapse and disappear; the critical reactions could generally be summed up as “it’s more complicated than that,” but his overall thesis is so big that it’s hard to handle it merely by going at the evidence for one area of the world. It’s pretty much the same here: Diamond argues that rather than reflecting vital differences among groups of humans, the different trajectories of those groups generally reflects how early those groups became sedentary, engaged in food production rather than hunting and gathering, had a resultant population explosion that encouraged the formation of larger political groups, domesticated large animals that further enabled food production and also encouraged the rise of epidemic diseases to which only high-population groups could develop resistance, which then further set up smaller groups to be decimated by later exposure to these diseases. Geography matters not only in terms of the susceptibility of local plants and animals to high-value domestic production (the large animals of Africa, for example, resist domestication to this day, and various grains and pulses had trouble matching the caloric/protein power of wheat) but also in exportability—by having such a long longitudinal axis allowing plants and animals to spread easily into new territories with similar climates/growing seasons, Eurasia had a critical advantage not matched elsewhere until transportation improved enough to move plants and animals around climatic barriers, late in the game. Guns and steel are much later in the chain than food and domesticated animals and only show up in the title, I think, because some editor decided that would be better than “Food, Germs and Horses.” His explicit aim is to reject biologically based explanations for why Europeans colonized the Americas etc. and not vice versa, and secondarily to argue that history can be understood as a kind of science, even though it can’t sustain the kind of lab experiments that physics can. It’s a bold thesis, and Diamond’s repeated trope of “there are four reasons that X happened, 1, 2, 3, 4” got a little self-parodic after a while, but I did learn from the repeated intercontinental comparisons. Wikipedia has a bit on critical reactions that I found helpful— the book occasionally equivocates about the effects of things like geographic barriers on cultural/technical development.… (more)
LibraryThing member ejp1082
Jared Diamond takes a broad view of human history and argues that geography was the primary thing driving the evolution of societies, making the eventual dominance of eurasian societies all but inevitable. He defends his thesis with an array of evidence from astonishingly disparate fields - genetics, evolutionary biology, archeology, climatology, linguistics, and dozens of others play a role here.

Altogether, the author presents a fascinating case laid out in an easily understood way, that's a must-read for anyone with an interest in human history.
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LibraryThing member eduscapes
Winner of the Pulitzer Prize, Diamond does a great job connecting science and social studies through examining geographical and environmental factors that shaped today's world. The book brings together many of the pieces of history and science that traditional classes never connected.
LibraryThing member ex_ottoyuhr
The fact that he, writing _two years before the twenty-first century_, actually considers it necessary to _refute_ heartily discredited and almost self-evidently nonsensical 19thC racial theories is almost as annoying as the fact that he can't write worth beans.
LibraryThing member dypaloh
Dr. Diamond. Now there’s a name begging to be assigned a character in a superhero movie. Jared Diamond might agree.

Guns, Germs, and Steel derives from a thesis Dr. Diamond has about how some societies were able to accumulate so much “cargo” compared to other peoples. He attempts to dissuade readers from ideas that individual or cultural superiority must be the basis of explanation.

This is a good topic but my interest in his argument fell off in proportion to the number of pages read. Not an obstacle, though. Dr. Diamond so often presented fun ideas and information that a thematic excuse to continue on wasn’t needed.

As one example of what I found fun: why zebras did not come to serve as the African horse.
“Zebras have the unpleasant habit of biting a person and not letting go. They thereby injure even more American zookeepers each year than do tigers! Zebras are also virtually impossible to lasso with a rope—even for cowboys who win rodeo championships by lassoing horses—because of their unfailing ability to watch the rope noose fly toward them and then to duck their head out of the way.”

Pretty damn good, zebras. Born to be wild!

ALTHOUGH, I must point out, in the movie Hatari a zebra is lassoed by the character played by John Wayne. Now, no shame being lassoed by the Duke, of course. And it’s possible the movie exercised some sleight of hand to fool us. Maybe it was a zebra-striped horse (it really does look like a zebra though). Or maybe, just maybe, the “unfailing” zebras sometimes fail when chased a long distance by a bunch of people in a truck, a technique not available to ancient Africans. Is Dr. Diamond still interested? He should discuss this.

One annoyance was the book’s misleading title, which could better have been Germs! Germs! Germs! And Other Stuff. As a kid I didn’t like germs but I liked guns (the plastic toys) and I liked steel. The boy in me wanted to read about the stuff I’d liked. But those grim germs run rampant here, laying waste to the guns and the steel and their metaphorical counterparts.

Nor does it help that at times Dr. Diamond will talk so much about a single subject that the reader is apt to expire before finishing. His aim is to convince and if entertainment suffers from the effort, so be it.

The merit of the book is that the author gives well-articulated reasons in the effort to convince and he entertains often enough. Even when he fails and writes something dull or irritating, it’s easy to be forgiving because there will be something good coming up again. For example: “With the rise of chiefdoms around 7,500 years ago, people had to learn, for the first time in history, how to encounter strangers regularly without attempting to kill them.”

Let us bow to the chiefdoms! Without them, how could road trips be the attraction they are today?
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LibraryThing member rakerman
Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond is an attempt to address the question of why Europeans conquered the Americas and Africa, and not the other way around. It analyzes the factors underlying the conquests by trying to get to ultimate causes -- why did Europeans have the particular technologies and illnesses that they did, while those they conquered were vulnerable to the diseases (which did most of the killing in North America) and the superior weaponry (including horses for cavalry).

These causes are investigated by examining the last 13,000 years of history on all of the inhabited continents, seeing what initial advantages and disadvantages they had. Diamond's argument is that in the Eurasian content there happened by chance a fortuitous combination of easily domesticatable plants and animals. In addition he argues that by accident of geography, the Eurasian continent has an East-West axis that makes it easy for developments to propagate across the entire landmass.

Obviously there's far more information than I could hope to summarize. I found the book really interesting as it makes a successful effort to encompass the developmental histories of all of the inhabited continents, thus providing me with a much broader perspective than I got from standard European history classes. It is very interesting to see the complexities of so many different societies, from hunter-gatherers on through to sophisticated agricultural empires. These variants of society existed all over the world, across time and space spanning thousands of years and thousands of miles. Due to different geographical circumstances and different initial combinations of plants and animals, societies all over the world reached different levels of development, so that depending on e.g. which Austronesian island you visited, you might encounter an agricultural kingdom or a small hunter-gatherer group.

One of the aims of the book is to demolish racist arguments of success and failure, and it does this very well, by showing how incredibly simplistic such ideas are, in comparison to the incredible complexity of actual societies world-wide. He makes a very conscious effort to try to set historical analysis within a rigorously scientific framework, using evidence of all types to support his conclusions. Amongst other things, it really is a fascinating overview of world history in the broadest sense, addressing the developments of societies and the movements of people on all inhabited continents.

Rather than simplistic tales of "good" hunter-gatherers versus "bad" farmers, or "good" aboriginals versus "bad" colonizers, or any of the other arbitrary dichotomies people like to put forward, it was fascinating to read the real history of conflicts amongst people. In stories about the high levels of violence in and between New Guinea tribes, and analysis indicating violent dislocations of people, such as Bantu farmers replacing Khoisan hunter-gatherers in Africa, or Maoris armed with guns conquering the Moriori people, he replaces simple generalizations about "Africa" or "Australia and New Zealand" with an appreciation of their different peoples and cultures.

Also see Ronald Wright's Stolen Continents for another angle on the Americas.
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LibraryThing member LisaMaria_C
Reading this made me think of the story of the blind men and the elephant; a Jain version of the story reads:

The blind man who feels a leg says the elephant is like a pillar; the one who feels the tail says the elephant is like a rope; the one who feels the trunk says the elephant is like a tree branch; the one who feels the ear says the elephant is like a hand fan; the one who feels the belly says the elephant is like a wall; and the one who feels the tusk says the elephant is like a solid pipe.

At the end of the book, I did find Diamond persuasive enough to be convinced he had part of the truth, but I admit at this point of my life I'm skeptical of simple explanations that purport to explain everything. Granted, sometimes there are cases like that--at the root of the Theory of a Heliocentric System or Evolution by Natural Selection is a pretty simple concept. But think of trying to explain an individual human being solely by his environment. Similarly, Jared Diamond here tries to explain the "broad patterns" of human history by one factor--environment. Geography really.

The argument goes something like this. Humans had a "Great Leap Forward" around 50 thousand years ago--probably through a reorganization of the brain--that allowed them to invent things more sophisticated than crude stone tools and fire. They then spread to every continent but Antarctica, and about 11 thousand years ago, after the end of the Ice Age, came the Neolithic and the first herding and agriculture. But this is where human society became complicated and unequal. Because the different continents offered a different "suite" of animals and plants to choose from for domestication--and in that respect the Fertile Crescent (and to a lesser extent China) were insanely gifted and the continents outside Eurasia poor. Also, the axis of the continents meant diffusion of these developments were much more rapid in Eurasia than the other continents. The package of domesticated plants and animals in Eurasia enabled much greater food production--but also the development of "crowd diseases" such as small pox that came with close association with herding animals such as cattle and sheep. The greater food production caused a population explosion that led to more powerful forms of political association devolping and specialization into professions and crafts and with it the invention of writing and other technologies. And all that is at the root as to why when the Old World and New World came into contact, who would win and who would lose was inevitable.

There is something very appealing about Diamond's hypothesis. It's a theory of history without heroes or villains. Or at least without nationalist triumphalism or finger-pointing. It's the antithesis of racism. Diamond quickly dismisses the racist IQ theories such as presented in Herrnstein and Murray's The Bell Curve. I'm using "racist" here, or trying to, in the objective, neutral definition that it consists of the belief that there are innate differences between subgroups of humans that make some superior to others. Of course, it would have helped if Diamond didn't talk about how he thought natives of Papua New Guinea are probably superior in intelligence to Westerners (tribal warfare and knowledge of natural environment selecting for intelligence more than literacy and video games). But as he'd argue, since that would only cut against the results you'd expect, it doesn't affect his analysis of the important factors that gave some parts of the globe a head start on powerful technologies and social organizations.

I'm skeptical of Diamond's claims for his theory as the foundation of a "science of history" that could explain nearly everything. As with explaining the formation of individual character, I suspect history is formed by an array of factors--from material factors such as those Diamond details to the "Great Men" theory of Carlyle to the cultural and political factors such as those detailed in Landes' The Wealth and Poverty of Nations. Much of Guns, Germs and Steel read like a refutation of Landes' book, which was actually published a year after this one. I don't want to go into the parallels between the books and contradictions point by point, except I think both works are worth reading and provide food for thought. Both agree that "fragmentation" of political control (which Diamond again thinks might have geographical roots) might explain why Europe, rather than China, was the center of the scientific and industrial revolutions.

I'd give Diamond's book a slight edge over that of Landes simply because I found it more fun to read. I could have done without Diamond's politically correct sensibilities that made it necessary to always put "discovery," "exploration" and "backwardness" in quotes. At the same time his claim that what happened between Pizarro and Incan Emperor Atahuallpa is "well-known" based only on Spanish accounts was eyebrow raising. My eyes did glaze over a bit at the long, involved detailed discussions of linguistics, and many of his points are repetitive. Nothing is cited and sourced. But I found it fascinating to read about that crux between pre-history and history--when and where and why humans first developed agriculture and systems of writing and the development of human diseases. In my geeky way I loved reading about how writing developed independently in Mesoamerica, China and the Fertile Crescent. How writing spread from the Fertile Crescent to Egypt, which developed a system of writing that included an alphabet side by side its hieroglyphs developed into the first alphabet by the Phoenicians. How Sequoyah developed a syllabary for the Cherokee. As a once upon a time political science major in college with my own idiosyncratic political beliefs, I found Diamond's speculations on the formation of the state thought-provoking. I was surprised to find out leprosy is a pretty "new" disease that first appeared in 200 B.C. Given its mention in the Bible, I thought it a particularly ancient malady. And did you know chickens were first domesticated in China? Why we type on a QWERTY keyboard? Well, you would have had you read this book.… (more)
LibraryThing member lewallen
A fascinating look at why some people, in the words of a New Guinean man, "have more cargo". It's impossible to ignore the vast differences between groups of people in the world. Some have simply been much more successful, either at conquering other peoples, accumulating material wealth, or spreading their genes and memes far and wide. It's generally considered impolite and non-PC to assume a racist explaination, but lacking a solid, rational explaination, it can be easy to conclude that the differences between peoples must be inherent in the people themselves.

Jared Diamond refutes the racist explaination decisively and at some length (a bit too much length, in my opinion, as I took it as a given that the explaination wasn't and couldn't be racist, and was ready for him to just make his points). The answers he gives are detailed and very enlightening, and explain a wide variety of otherwise difficult questions. For instance, the native South Americans were killed in huge numbers by a combination of Spanish guns and steel, and European germs. Why were they so outmatched by the Europeans? For starters, there were no domesticatable large animals of labor in South America, as they had all probably been hunted to extinction by the first groups of humans to cross the Siberian land bridge during the Ice Age. That meant that the South Americans had no horses to mount their warriors on, no particular reason to invent the wheel, and no long-term exposure in close proximity to domesticated animals, from whence we get most of our epidemic diseases. The result: massacre.

How did the Europeans get those advantages? Starting with the biogeological randomness of the Fertile Crescent, crops were domesticated, as well as those animals native to the area that had been living near humans before people were such effective hunters. Thanks to the orientation of the Eurasian continental axis, domesticated crops and animals spread easily from the Fertile Crescent to the Mediterranean and thence to Europe as the climate warmed, while the Americans were prevented from spreading crops by the band of desert and tropics separating the civilizations that arose there.

Diamond's Law of Optimum Fragmentation, which holds that groups of people are most successful when they are neither so decentralized that there is no clear leader, nor so centralized that the leadership becomes smothering, also proves fruitful in explaining why, for instance, Europe, with its many states alternately squabbling and forming blocs of alliances, ended up being more flexible and effective than China, which was united relatively early in history under one ruler.

I recommend this book as a companion to Victor Hanson's Carnage and Culture, as they both explain major parts of human evolution and interaction, and complement each other's ideas very well.
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LibraryThing member eburcat
Did you know that the Americas didn't evolve the wheel because they didn't have animal power that could make a wheel useful? Or that the number 1 protein source of the world came from around Israel? Breath-taking theories about the reasons behind everything we see around us. Fascinating.
LibraryThing member primalprayer
I know a lot of people who have started this book, liked it, but never finished it. I have finished it and have been fully rewarded through the insight it gave me about how our world has developed. The book is written to answer a question posed by a man from New Guinea to the author about the reason white men have so many things and black men so few. The answer is contained in this book and the reasons have nothing to do with "the superiority of a race" as some are led to believe.… (more)
LibraryThing member wfzimmerman
A classic that has influenced debate since its publication. Many arguments debatable, but the application of geography and biology to history is pioneering and stimulating.
LibraryThing member marysargent
This was consistently interesting, and quite well written for the intelligent lay reader.

It is flawed by Diamond's obvious bias toward proving that the fates of human societies "don't involve human racial differences at all". He says he objects to such racist explanations not ONLY because they are loathsome, but also that they are wrong. Shouldn't truth come first? Surely they would not be loathsome if they were true? However, he was thorough enough that I was absolutely convinced of his arguments. And happy to be so.… (more)
LibraryThing member jhevelin
This is one of the most astonishing intellectual journeys I have ever read. Diamond sets out to answer the following question (among several): when the Spanish encountered the Aztec in North America, why did the Aztecs die of Spanish diseases rather than the Spanish dying of Aztec diseases? It's a fascinating question, and Diamond does a magnificent job of identifying why some populations develop agriculture and metal working and civilization, and others don't. The short answer is, Geography -- but the ways he reaches the answer are fascinating.… (more)
LibraryThing member bozon
Interesting, and logical assay. Glad I read the book before I saw the PBS series. If I'd seen it first (boooring) I probably wouldn't have been interested enough to read the book.
LibraryThing member baggette
Lots of interesting facts. New ways to look at old information. I didn't like it as well as I thought I would from the PBS documentary bit that I saw. It was a difficult read; a bit tedious

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